Tommie Vassel stood in a black suit at the corner of Gen. de Gaulle and Shirley drives in Algiers, smiling at passing cars while supporters next to him waved “Vassel for Mayor” signs.
“That’s why we come out here, to remind them that we are in this race,” Vassel said.
Most drivers probably needed the reminder.
From the moment he announced his mayoral bid, Vassel, 60, has struggled to get a hearing. He’s had to fight to be included in public debates. In most polls, he isn’t even listed.
But what the better-known candidates don't have, he argues, is a better résumé. Vassel, a Democrat and an accountant for the past three decades, insists that what he lacks in name recognition he makes up for with a long history of civic involvement in New Orleans.
His experience, he argues — particularly the five years he spent as president pro tem of the Sewerage & Water Board — makes him the only candidate qualified to clean up the mess he says Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made at City Hall.
Landrieu is not Vassel’s only target. As one of more than a dozen underdogs in the race, he's been swinging aggressively at the leading candidates, often spending as much time tearing into their platforms as promoting his own.
He did much the same in a recent interview.
“I’m not political. I do not belong to a political family. So I can be independent in making my decisions,” Vassel said in an obvious jab at leading candidates Desiree Charbonnet and Michael Bagneris, both of whom come from families that are well-known in local politics.
“I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, all these people gave me all this money, so they are going to be looking for contracts,’ " Vassel said. "That’s not me.”
Unique bona fides
Born in Treme to a retail saleswoman and a truck driver, Vassel graduated from Joseph S. Clark High School in 1974 and Dillard University four years later with an eye on a career in finance.
He worked as an accountant for a decade before he was tapped in 1991 as the chief financial officer of the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce and MetroVision, its economic development arm.
The two agencies eventually merged to become what’s now known as Greater New Orleans Inc., the regional economic development alliance that serves 10 parishes.
Vassel resigned from that job three years later, not long after he applied unsuccessfully for a promotion to the post of vice president.
Despite the setback, he went on to serve in numerous civic roles. In 1997, he snagged a temporary appointment on the Orleans Parish School Board. Former Gov. Mike Foster chose him to lead the Louisiana Economic Development Corp. And former Mayor Ray Nagin in 2006 put him on the board of the S&WB.
Vassel was close to Nagin. They were among the co-owners of a now-defunct hockey team called the New Orleans Brass, and Vassel said he still writes to the former mayor, who is serving a 10-year prison term. “I don’t run from people when they’re down,” he said.
Since 2014, Vassel has been chief financial officer for Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.
He won praise recently from the judge in charge of overseeing federally mandated reforms at the local jail. Vassel served as a kind of liaison between Landrieu and Sheriff Marlin Gusman, who had clashed repeatedly over how much money Gusman should get from the city to improve conditions for inmates.
In the meantime, Vassel has also found time to serve as chairman of Catholic Charities of New Orleans and as a founding member of the advocacy group 100 Black Men of New Orleans. And the list goes on.
All along, he has kept up his accounting business, from which he drew $150,000 to help finance his mayoral campaign.
“There’s never been a mayoral candidate that’s had this kind of experience,” he said.
Vassel likens his background to the type of executive who typically leads a Fortune 500 company and argues that New Orleans needs just such an individual at its helm.
Those types of leaders usually are finance experts, not jurists, he said — another jab at Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge, and Bagneris, a former Civil District Court judge.
Obscurity a problem
But despite Vassel’s long list of accomplishments, connections to influential figures and scrappy campaigning style, he has failed to gain much financial backing or win many big-name endorsements.
The buzz early on in the mayor’s race was that Vassel might emerge as a favorite of some members of the city’s business community, but it was Bagneris who caught the attention of businessman Frank Stewart and other like-minded people.
“They played the chicken and the egg game with me,” Vassel said of local business leaders. “I suggested to them that if they fund my campaign, I’ll get more exposure, and they said, ‘Well, go get more exposure and we’ll fund your campaign.’ ”
He’s said he's not worried, though. Candidates can raise and spend a ton of money for naught, he said. He can point to Nagin, another accountant who self-funded his own campaign and leveraged glowing endorsements from media outlets to notch first place in the 2002 mayoral primary.
He beat out state Rep. Troy Carter, who had raised more than $700,000.
Once he made it to the runoff, Nagin easily netted more than $1 million in contributions and crushed former Police Superintendent Richard Pennington to become mayor.
“So, if I make the runoff, then…” Vassel trailed off, with a smile.
But while Nagin was a first-time candidate, Vassel has run for office many times before, without success. He lost a race for the District C City Council seat in 1990 and a campaign to fill his temporary School Board seat permanently in 1998. In 2002 and 2007, he lost City Council at-large races.
Solutions to problems
Like most of his rivals, Vassel says that if elected mayor he would prioritize public safety and jobs.
To help bring down crime, he says he is open to hiring more police. But he would first scrub the NOPD’s budget, which he said has increased sharply since before Hurricane Katrina even as the number of officers on the force has fallen.
Recruitment and retention should also be improved, he said. But he was hesitant to offer more detailed plans, saying instead that he would hire the most qualified police chief he can find and give that leader the space to operate.
He would follow that pattern with every city department, appointing experts and letting them report to him on their work. If the experts don’t perform up to snuff, they’ll get the boot, he said.
On jobs, he would partner with leading city institutions and help match up training with the jobs available in the region. Whatever the current mayor is doing on that front “is not working,” he said.
Landrieu, who released an economic opportunity strategy in 2014, has pointed to a drop in the city’s non-employment rate for black men, from 52 to 44 percent, as proof to the contrary.
As for the crisis at the S&WB, Vassel laid the blame squarely at Landrieu’s feet, saying the current mayor tinkered needlessly with how the agency is governed and made a mistake by installing Cedric Grant as its leader. Grant resigned amid an uproar over the state of the city's drainage pumps, which failed to prevent last month's flooding, and inaccurate statements made to the public.
Vassel said he would lobby the Legislature to put City Council members back on the S&WB, reversing one of Landrieu's reforms at the agency.
He also promised to actually show up at the board's regular meetings, rather than sending someone in his place, as has been the practice under recent mayors.
“I want to go after the tough stuff,” he said. “If I can accomplish that, they can build me a statue.”